Bayou City

Janet Jackson Reminds Houston Why She's an Icon

The day before her Toyota Center show, Janet Jackson visited with Houstonians displaced by Hurricane Harvey at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The day before her Toyota Center show, Janet Jackson visited with Houstonians displaced by Hurricane Harvey at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Photo by Marco Torres
Janet Jackson
Toyota Center
September 9, 2017

The power of Janet Jackson is an understated sort of power. Her songs and albums call for unity and ownership of one's sexuality and libido
; she was a trailblazer long before such buzzwords became the norm for pop singers in their quest for individuality. Songs with a direct social message to end racism? She touched on it nearly 30 years ago with Rhythm Nation. Messages about lovers, old and new, while declaring her own sense of freedom? That was janet. in 1993, with the classic Rolling Stone cover to match.

A day after she walked through the George R. Brown Convention Center to visit with those taking shelter following Hurricane Harvey, Jackson made good on another promise. A long-established one. Months after she halted her Unbreakable tour to give birth to her first child, the 51-year-old icon proved once more how timeless and graceful she is on the revamped State of the World Tour.

A video prelude to the opening number, Rhythm Nation's “The Knowledge,” touched on Syrian refugees, black men shot and killed by the police, a denouncement of white supremacy, domestic terrorism and more. The ringing sounds of “We Want Justice” elicited booming cheers from the Toyota Center crowd, obviously just as pissed off with white supremacy as Jackson was.

click to enlarge The opening notes of “Nasty” worked as an instant siren. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
The opening notes of “Nasty” worked as an instant siren.
Photo by Marco Torres
Soon, as the political and revolutionary tones of Rhythm Nation bled through, it was time to dance. To date, no one singer has been able to make my mother, aunt, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and friends dance quite like Janet. There have been playlists curated around specific Janet songs, conversations and discussions about her legacy and why she doesn’t get more respect. If there's a hive for Janet Jackson, my family happens to be card-carrying members.

When the opening notes of “Nasty” ripped through the Toyota Center atmosphere, it worked as an instant siren; a call to feet moving, bodies shaking. For a moment, nothing mattered except the current setting. Didn't matter if there was a storm. Didn't matter if bills were late or well behind. When in the presence of a legend, you do as the legend says. Well, Janet didn't have to say much. “You get the point? Let's dance,” said all that was needed.

“Houston! I love you! This one’s for you,” she exclaimed. Thus, the array of classics and hits began to pour out. “Control” happened and begat “Lately,” which was swiftly followed by “Pleasure Principle.” Suddenly, I could hear my mom yelling at me to back away from the TV watching Janet videos during my childhood. This was similar to catching The Revolution back in June, a proper nostalgia trip sans the grim circumstances of it even existing. It seemed rather appropriate that most of Janet’s '80s hits, brought on by the Minneapolis sounds of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, found a way to incorporate purple lighting. A Prince homage? Maybe. But it felt right.

For two hours on Saturday night, it felt right to go through the eras with Janet. The liberating janet. years, the rhythm-driven arcs of Control and even current album Unbreakable. She could have let “Again,” made famous by her film Poetic Justice, play as a mere interlude, and fans were swaying back and forth singing the song. Clad mostly in svelte black numbers and showing how fit she is post-pregnancy, she hit impressive choreography and even milly-rocked one time to prove she was still in on the times. After the "Again" interlude, she emerged from the back as dressed down as one can be in a denim jean jacket and black-and-red sweat pants, the mood switched up.

click to enlarge The purple lighting felt like a subtle Prince homage. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
The purple lighting felt like a subtle Prince homage.
Photo by Marco Torres
Comfortable, relaxed, she could deliver “Twenty Foreplay,” in her delicate whisper of a singing voice. All the security and sexuality she took for self had been flipped for the sweetness of love songs on this night. No “Anytime, Anyplace” or “Would You Mind” on this set list. Instead, it was her seated on a stool coffeehouse style with a backing band twirling through the emotions. Trust, nobody could pull off bummy sincerity better than Janet. I'd be hard-pressed to find another “fav” who would.

But it got to her, all of this. What the tour meant and its importance. After a spirited performance of “What About,” she caught herself trying to avoid crying in front of her fans. She breathed for a moment, even chuckled, but we knew those were tears. They didn't last long, though. “If” rumbled for a moment before seamlessly switching to the pomp and circumstance that was her initial closer, “Rhythm Nation.”

Even at the close, Janet wasn’t done. The vibrant island tug of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” found its way woven into “That’s the Way Love Goes” for a perfect blend. The breakdown of “I Get Lonely,” a song and video that once more announced Janet couldn’t be messed with, felt sensual and chill. There were flashes of Velvet Rope Tour Janet, but not enough to run home and tell somebody, “Oh, Janet did this!” Those HBO concerts where lucky men would be strapped to metal contraptions as Janet had her way with them? Nonexistent on this night.

“Houston, I want to thank you. You've shown my family so much love over the years,” she said. It was pre-requisite, but the love was definitely felt. For a while, the State of the World Tour felt like shades of all of Janet. Despite big visual declarations and elaborate lighting, Janet made it feel far more intimate than it had any right to be. This was a tour, after all, etched after a song from 1989, a song that spoke to the ills of society: “What is happening to this world we live in/ In our home and other lands.”

The world is hurting. And for a moment, even if it was brief, a city still bearing the scars of massive flooding got to find a second to ignore it. The encore close of “Well Traveled” fit this city, and this tour. “I don't know where this journey will end/ 'Cause the world keeps calling me/ At home people embrace me as a friend/ And I'm loving all the energy.”

That’s Houston in a nutshell.

click to enlarge “Houston, I want to thank you. You've shown my family so much love over the years,” Jackson told the crowd. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
“Houston, I want to thank you. You've shown my family so much love over the years,” Jackson told the crowd.
Photo by Marco Torres
The Knowledge
State of The World
Miss You Much
You Want This
What Have You Done for Me Lately
The Pleasure Principle
When I Think of You
All for You
All Nite (Don't Stop)
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
Again (Video interlude)
Twenty Foreplay
Where Are You Now
Come Back to Me
The Body That Loves You
Spending Time With You
No Sleeep
Got 'til It's Gone
That's the Way Love Goes
Island Life
Together Again
What About
Rhythm Nation

Livin' in a World (They Didn't Make)
Black Eagle
New Agenda
Dammn Baby
I Get Lonely
Well Traveled
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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell